On the 26th of June 2015 America’s first black president sang a song written by an abolitionist, in a church founded by a man who planned a slave revolt; now that’s something to remember.
It was the moment when this black president of the United States finally fully associated himself with the black community. It was the moment when he spoke out against the dangers of gun violence. It was the moment when he talked about slavery, civil rights, Jim Crow and against all expectations sang that most evocative of hymns, Amazing Grace.
“Blinded by hatred, he failed to comprehend what Reverend Pinckney so well understood — the power of God’s grace”
Obama praised the Pastor; Clementa Pinkney, honouring him as a “man of faith”, and “a good man”. He held Pinkney up as an example of his faith, and with good humour, he described the time they had met, claiming that he lacked the grey hairs back then. Obama then mentioned that no wonder his senate colleagues remembered Pinkney as “the most gentle of the 46 of us- the best of the 46 of us”, which leads him on to mention his role as both a civil servant and a pastor. Pinkney was often asked why he took on both jobs, and it is at this point that Obama explains that “the person who asked, probably didn’t know the history of the AME church”, and “Our calling”. Pinkney once said, “it is not just within the walls of the congregation, but…the life and community in which our congregation resides.” Obama displays a fond understanding of the black methodist community and he even refers to himself as a direct part of it, saying; “thats what the black church means…where our dignity as a people is inviolate”. Obama no longer steers clear of the part of his identity as the first black president, but he adopts it, embraces it, and even celebrates it.
“What a good man. Sometimes I think that’s the best thing to hope for when you’re eulogized — after all the words and recitations and resumes are read, to just say someone was a good man.”
The AME church is one of the oldest African American churches in the southern states of America, one that was built after dispute over burial rights, with what became the white Charleston Methodist Church. It was built before the abolition of slavery, by slaves and free blacks in 1816. It has been the subject of previous shootings and arson, but it was later reborn “from the ashes” as Obama puts it, citing the metaphor of a phoenix. Dr Martin Luther King and many other civil rights activists stopped off at this important site to make speeches, in defiance of the unjust Jim Crow laws, calling for desegregation and equality. It was a calculated attack that took place here on the 17th of June, and Obama addressed the implications of it head on. He discussed the connotations of the controversial confederate flag that is so often still flown in the southern states. In a voice that begins to sound more and more like MLK himself, he declared that it “represents more than just ancestral pride”, but instead represents a time of “oppression” and “racial subjugation”.
“None of us can or should expect a transformation in race relations overnight.”
Obama then moved on to the subject of the shooting;”An act that he (the shooter) presumed would deepen divisions that trace back to our nation’s original sin” and it was then that Obama cited the famous words of Christians around the world; “but God works in mysterious ways”. At that moment, the brothers, sisters and swaths of black listeners stood up in admiration of his words. He had the room’s attention, and it was then that he turned back to the idea of grace. He described the grace that the Reverend possessed, and the family that; “in the midst of unspeakable grief”, greeted the killer with words of forgiveness.
“But it would be a betrayal of everything Reverend Pinckney stood for, I believe, if we allowed ourselves to slip into a comfortable silence again.”
Using the call and response tone akin to preachers around the south, he exclaimed loudly; “for too long” has the United States been blind to the dangers of gun violence. He alluded to the other racial shootings such as Ferguson and the shooting of the young boy Trayvon Martin and he announced that America must not allow itself to slip into “an uncomfortable silence” again. Instead, he encouraged his listeners around the US and the World to speak out against such atrocities and to destroy the racial prejudice that America was unfortunately built on, all those years ago.
” For too long, we’ve been blind to the unique mayhem that gun violence inflicts upon this nation.”
“That reservoir of goodness. If we can find that grace, anything is possible. If we can tap that grace, everything can change.”
On that note, Obama began to sing and the room sang with him; the lyrics of John Newton’s famous hymn. It is a moment that should never be forgotten, a poignant defence against racism, injustice, violence, but also a celebration of love and forgiveness. To avoid further racial tensions and to ensure that the shooters act was in vain, Obama cleverly encouraged his countrymen to meet this form of racial hatred with an attitude of grace, forgiveness and integration. It was an overtly religious, southern American spectacle, which so eloquently confronted a systemic American problem.
“May God continue to shed His grace on the United States of America”
By Dominic Rickard